When I saw the results of the 2019 Cannes Jury judging process I was pleasantly surprised by what appear to be some interesting and seemingly well-supported decisions. Here are the main awards for 2019:
Palme d’Or: Parasite, dir. Bong Joon-ho (South Korea)
Grand Prix: Atlantique, dir. Mati Diop (France-Senegal-Belgium)
Jury Prize (tie): Les Misérables (dir. Ladj Ly, France) and Bacurau (dirs. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles, Brazil-France)
Best Actress: Emily Beecham, Little Joe, (dir. Jessica Hausner, Austria-UK-Germany)
Best Actor: Antonio Banderas, Dolor y gloria (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
Best Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, (Le jeune Ahmed, Belgium-France)
Best Screenplay: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, Céline Sciamma (dir. Céline Sciamma, France)
Special Mention of the Jury: It Must Be Heaven, dir. Elia Suleiman (France-Qatar-Germany-Canada-Turkey-Palestine)
I haven’t seen any of the films, but I am familiar with most of the directors and the two actors in the list and on that basis I’m very happy with the results.
But the main question is how do these results affect the way Cannes as a festival is judged? The second question is what happens to these titles now? How many of them will be shown in the UK and how long will they take to get here?
I’ll deal with the most dispiriting news first – which both feeds a current debate and dismays me as a filmgoer. The film I perhaps most want to see is Atlantique and I’ve already seen a tweet suggesting that it has been sold to Netflix. What this actually means is not clear as the film appears to have a French theatrical distributor. France seems to handle this much better than the UK. I want to see the film in a cinema and I want a DVD I can use for teaching. Will this be a similar case to Roma? Possibly not but Mati Diop is the first black woman to win a prize at Cannes as a director and that ought to generate some interest even in the UK market. I remember Ms Diop as an actor in the wonderful Claire Denis film 35 rhums (France 2008) and as the director of a short 16 mins version of Atlantique released in 2009.
The prize for Atlantique is also noteworthy in the recognition of female filmmakers at Cannes. Alongside Mati Diop, Céline Sciamma has won the script prize for a film she has also directed and Jessica Hausner has directed the film which produced the best female performance by Emily Beecham. I’ve already seen comments that though these results are welcome, why have no women won best director or the Palme d’Or since Jane Campion in 1993? Several commentators have also noted that women have won the script prize for the last three years (Lynne Ramsay in 2017, Alice Rohrwacher in 2018), each time for a film they have also directed. Is there a reluctance to award them best picture or best director? I understand all these points and I’d like to see a much more even share of prizes as recognition of women’s creativity and skill in the film industry. But it’s going to take time to improve the the number of Cannes screenings of films by women. The whole enterprise could backfire if the overall quality of entries was affected by attempts to ‘fast track’ particular writers/directors. The juries have become much more diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation and nationality but perhaps more does need to be done in the selection process for film titles to go into competition? Overall I think Cannes is making progress.
What else is notable in these results? East Asia wins the Palme d’Or again, this time an overdue win for South Korea and Bong Joon-ho. I have been a big fan, but not able to see his last two films because they haven’t had a proper release in UK cinemas. Parasite has been acquired by Curzon, which means it won’t play in Bradford but I should be able to see it in Manchester. I’m also a fan of Céline Sciamma, the Dardenne Brothers and Elia Suleiman (bravo for a Palestinian filmmaker getting recognition). Curzon has also picked up the Céline Sciamma film – and the intriguing Romanian title The Whistlers set on the tiny island of La Gomera in the Canaries. I haven’t yet seen who has acquired Le jeune Ahmed or It Must Be Heaven for the UK.
Jessica Hausner is the Austrian director who directed Lourdes (2009) which won prizes at Venice. That film was in French and she has also made features in German and now English. Little Joe, a UK co-production, stars Emily Beecham, winner of the best female performance prize. She is mainly known as a TV actor in the UK but I remember her performance in Daphne (UK 2017). I didn’t like that film for several reasons but I was impressed by Emily Beecham’s lead performance so I’m looking forward to Little Joe. The film attracted some BBC funding which means that we should see it in UK cinemas. As an SF/horror film about biotechnology it should find a UK audience.
The other two prizes offer contrasting stories. Antonio Banderas playing an ageing gay film director for Pedro Almodóvar is guaranteed a strong UK reception surely – even during the Brexit madness? The film is distributed in different territories by Sony, Warner Bros. and Pathé but I’m not sure who will bring it to the UK. The final prize (the Jury Prize) is split between the Brazilian film by two directors who collaborated on Aquarius in 2016 (and Neighbouring Sounds in 2012) and the updated version of Les Misérables by Ladj Ly. This last title is a début fiction feature by a black documentarist from the Paris banlieues. It certainly sounds like something I would want to see and which again should find a UK market. Selecting the film also highlights one of the other questions that always hangs around Cannes.
Cannes is a French festival but is it too focused on French films? Looking down the list of prize-winners it seems clear that if you are a filmmaker from anywhere else in the world, you are best advised to at least consider a French co-production deal as a way of getting a Cannes competition screening. Only US or UK films (because of their financial muscle/market importance) or films from securely established auteurs like Almodóvar stand much chance otherwise. This year the Americans have really suffered with Terence Malick winning only a minor prize and Quentin Tarantino ignored altogether. I’m not going to try to analyse why that is. It’s good of course that French support for East Asian directors has brought further recognition for Bong Joon-ho following on from Kore-eda Hirokazu last year. Asian titles always seem to get more support in Paris than in London and it’s no surprise that, following Asghar Farhadi, Kore-eda has now made a film in France, The Truth (2019) with Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. I think this might appear at Venice? But Cannes still struggles to showcase Indian film industries – something arguably more a problem caused by institutional failures in those industries rather than the festival itself?
We’ll try to see as many of these 2019 Cannes titles as possible in a cinema. I hope the London, Leeds and Glasgow festival programmers will bring them to us even if they don’t all get UK releases.
This is the film that was voted top in the Sight & Sound ten-yearly critics’ polls from 1962 until 2002. Even when it was toppled by Vertigo (USA 1958) it still secured the second spot. Top or ‘greatest’ films are conjecture rather than indisputable masterworks. But the sheer longevity of Kane speaks to its capacity to be seen and re-seen; for me at least ten cinema screenings. So now, thanks to the Hebden Bridge Picture House, cineastes in West Yorkshire have an opportunity to assess or re-assess the film. And it is screening as it should be experienced, on 35mm.
The film was directed by Orson Welles, his first outing with a feature film. Welles’s career is often seen as a series of failures. If so, what artist would not relish such failure. He also directed The Magnificent Ambersons (USA ), which, despite being cut by the studio, remains a fine and beautifully realised adaptation. Then we have the three great adaptations of William Shakespeare, Macbeth (USA 1948), Othello (USA, Italy, Morocco, France 1951) and Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff, Switzerland, France, Spain 1965). There is one of the finest film noirs – Touch of Evil (USA 1957) – with the memorable opening combined track and crane shot that Robert Altman homaged in The Player (USA 1992 ). In between he filmed a memorable adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (France, West Germany Italy 1962). And then right at the end of Welles’ career the delightful, playful F for Fake (France, Iran, Germany 1975). Then there are his 123 screen appearances, plus many more on television. Some were pastiches, some were very poor films. But the outstanding performances, including Kane, Touch of Evil and that other classic The Third Man (UK 1949), are up there with the other greats.
Welles cinema was full of innovations. If you doubt that, after Kane, watch any Hollywood sound film from 1930 to 1940. This was in part because as a director Welles recruited the best talent he could find and both inspired and challenged them. He was, like many directors, similar to a conductor of an orchestra, providing the overall interpretation and offering the players scope for their individual talents. But it was also because Welles bought imagination to his art work.
Citizen Kane has an original screenplay, produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz working with Welles. Mankiewicz had started in Hollywood in the 1920s and worked right through the 1930s. He had a background in newspaper work and bought an ability to write fast, witty dialogue and to provide a satirical view of human foibles. Both are apparent in Kane: there are many memorable lines and the rise and partial fall of the protagonist is delivered with great aplomb. Mankiewicz had addiction to alcohol and during the writing phase he was kept in line by Welles’s talented producer John Houseman who also contributed to the script.
The Art Design was supervised by Van Nest Polglase with Perry Ferguson; Set Decoration by Darrell Silvera; Costume Design by Edward Stevenson, all members of the RKO Art Department. The film involves an incredibly varied range of sets and period costumes. It also involved settings that even by Hollywood standards were large, impressive and [at times] overbearing. The opening sequence as the camera tracks in on Kane’s fabulous Xanadu exemplifies the range of materials and props and the use of special effects. The film was unusual for the period as most of the sets have visible ceilings, an aspect that Hollywood films tended to avoid because of the need for the lighting rigs.
One of the outstanding features of Kane is the cinematography by Gregg Toland. He started on camera work in the 1920s and worked through the 1930 and it was then he developed his skills in ‘deep focus’ techniques where the image has a noticeable depth of field. Kane is full of remarkable depth of field: there are impressive long shots of characters ‘lost’ in the vast grandeur of Xanadu. Toland used the latest film stock and lenses to innovate in filming. The film has impressive camera movements and angles, emphasising the vastness of Kane’s empire. There is also a strong expressionist feel in the use of chiaroscuro, something that is a Welles trade mark. Toland wrote up his work on the film for the ‘American Cinematographer’.
The Special Effects with the cinematography were by Vernon L. Walker, an experienced and skilled professional in the field. Two of the key sound engineers were John Aalberg Sound Supervisor and Harry Essman Special Sound Effects. Welles’ films are notable for their use of sound, a skill he bought with him to Hollywood after his extensive work in radio. The original Kane enjoyed the high fidelity RCS Sound System.
The editing was by Robert Wise who went on to direct his own films. The film is beautifully put together, often relying on dissolves rather than cuts. But there are fine transitions and rapid montage: notably the sequences depicting the failing marriage of Kane and his first wife Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). However, Wise later blotted his copybook when he worked on the studio ‘version’ of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
Integral to the film and the soundtrack is the music of Bernard Hermann. Welles bought Hermann to Hollywood where he enjoyed a long career as one of the greats of Hollywood music. His core for Kane is Wagnerian, especially in the specially composed opera excerpt, ‘Salammbo’.
Welles also bought a number of the players from his Mercury Radio Theater. Joseph Cotten is Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland; Everett Sloane is Kane’s manager Berstein and Agnes Moorehead, in only one short scene, is Kane’s mother Mary. Another key character is Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander player by Dorothy Comingore. There are numerous other supporting players, the cast credits run to over a hundred. William Alland offers an excellent investigate reporter Jerry Thompson and Paul Stewart is memorable as the oily manservant Raymond.
The quality of the film owes much to this supporting cast, including many minor roles only seen and heard in one or two scenes. Equally the production values owe much to the supporting technicians who worked with the director and his team leaders. The film enjoys the high quality of a Hollywood studio production coupled with an adventurous and innovative approach.
There is one other star in the film, a single word ‘Rosebud’. This invention by either Welles or Mankiewicz is a brilliant trope in the film, both binding the narrative together and providing an audience hook for the film’s exploration of Charles Foster Kane. It is also a ‘cheat’: watch the first sequence of the film carefully and then pay attention to the instructions to Thompson by his producer.
Some commentators suggest that ‘Rosebud’ is one factor in the campaign against the film by William Randolph Hearst, the great newspaper proprietor. Certainly, despite disclaimers. Kane’s character and career offer a number of parallels to that of Hearst in real life. Citizen Kane‘s relatively poor box office showing owed much to the campaign against the film in Hearst’s newspapers. And despite several nominations its only Academy Award was for Best Original Screenplay. In a long interview for the ‘BBC Arena’ Welles claimed that on the night of the films’ premiere, at RKO’s Radio City in New York in May 1941, he got into the hotel lift and saw before him W. R. Hearst. Both recognised the other. Welles claims that he offered Hearst a ticket to the film premiere which Hearst declined. Welles then quipped
“Kane would have taken it.”
Follow his example.
Check out the film in detail at the American Film Institute.
This was quite a good year for new releases. The best, for me, were as follows: in the order that I saw them:
Selma USA 2014.
A model of what a biopic should be and combining intelligence with mainstream production values.
Mummy Canada 2014
The film’s intensity was increased by the use of an unusual aspect ratio.
Phoenix, Germany 2014
A great combination of noir and Kurt Weill.
Bande de Filles (Girlhood) France 2014
A pleasure to watch, but serious with it.
A Pigeon sat on a Branch and Reflected on Life (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) Sweden, Norway 2014.
The film manages to be both droll and surreal at the same time.
Timbuktu Mauritania 2014
The first intelligent film about jihadists and the best football sequence in years.
45 Years UK 2015
Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.
Taxi (Taxi Teheran) Iran 2015
Subversion was rarely so witty or so much fun.
The Assassin (Nie yin Niang) China, Taiwan, Hong Kong 2015
Slow and with a tricky plot, but visually and aurally stunning.
Carol USA 2015
What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.
Song of the Sea Eire 2014
Beautiful traditional animation: lovely dog.
White God (Fehér isten) Hungary 2014.
The largest and the most impressively led pack of dogs seen in ages.
National Gallery, France, USA, UK 2014
Frederick Wiseman’s typical and completely absorbing portrait of a British artistic institution.
Letter to the Editor of Amateur Photography, UK 2013
The pleasure of watching radical documentary form: unfortunately it has had only a limited screenings.
Best wedding on film:
Wild Tales (Relatos salvaje) Argentina 2014
The best portmanteau film of the year and my most hilarious moments in cinema.
Most impressive silent film, by a narrow margin:
Les Misérables France 1928
This screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a fine restoration, which ran for six hours: about the time you needed to read part one of the book.
Best film accompaniment:
This was the Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who accompanied Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928) along with the Otawasa Ensemble. This was another fine restoration also screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Best early sound film:
Tell England UK 1931 screened at the British Silent Film Festival and demonstrated that how well some filmmaker used the new technology.
The film most worth waiting for:
The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana) Poland 1975.
Director Andrzej Wajda’s epic of C19th capitalism in Łódź. And the series of Polish classics, partly organised by Martin Scorsese, was excellent.
The worst films that I sat through this year – a tie between,
Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Netherlands, Mexico, Belgium, Finland, France 2015
Steve Jobs USA 2015.
Both films had proficient technical aspects but both were idiosyncratic biopics, which showed little interest in the situation of the subject.
Here are the ten films, released in UK cinemas in 2015, that I enjoyed most or which made the most impression on me this year. I’ve placed them in alphabetical order:
Carol (UK-US-France 2015)
Girlhood (France 2014)
Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)
OK Kanmani (India, Tamil 2015)
Phoenix (Germany 2014)
Piku (India, Hindi 2015)
Taxi Tehran (Iran 2015)
Theeb (Jordan 2015)
Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)
West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)
Because this is a list of ‘most enjoyed’, it’s obviously a list reflecting my taste. Although only one title was directed by a woman (Girlhood), four films could be described as female-centred melodramas, two as romance/family dramas, two as political ‘statements’ and just one as an ‘action narrative’ – and Theeb is an action adventure from a young boy’s perspective.
Half of the ten films above are films that I have introduced, discussed or formally taught this year. Girlhood stands out as I saw it four times on four different cinema screens in the space of a year, as well as studying several scenes in detail. Each time I watched it I got something new from it. I also presented and discussed Ex Machina for students and it proved a good choice for a student event, provoking an interesting set of questions.
I don’t rank or ‘grade’ films since this seems a pointless exercise, based on a wide range of criteria that aren’t applicable to every film. There are several films that I missed which may well have appeared on my list. In my part of West Yorkshire we get most film releases but not all and I can only get to Manchester or Sheffield occasionally rather than all the time. I’m most sorry to have missed Alexei German’s Hard to be a God and several of the Polish classics in the touring season.
Even though more and more documentaries are released in cinemas each year, I tend to see only a handful. Amy has appeared in many end of year lists and I can understand why. For my own part, I need a documentary to offer three very different pleasures – an interesting subject, an aesthetic approach that works and a filmmaker whose viewpoint I can appreciate, even if I don’t agree with it. That’s a tall order and the nearest to meeting it this year was probably The Salt of the Earth.
I did watch some American films this year including Mad Max: Fury Road and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. I did enjoy both screenings, partly because of the public debates about the films and at the time I felt engaged by the debates – but the films themselves didn’t make a lasting impression. Spy proved to be good entertainment for a night out. But the best American films I saw tended to be archive films or restorations. Missouri Breaks surprised me and my love of Westerns is still there. Can I bring myself to spend three hours with Quentin Tarantino next month?
I only managed four festivals this year, all in the UK. Glasgow Film Festival was very enjoyable and most of the films I saw eventually got a UK release (except the Chinese films). I only made two films at Leeds and Crow’s Egg did get a very limited UK release (six screens) and perhaps should have been in my list of ten. ¡Viva! was in three parts this year and proved as fascinating as usual – but sadly Spanish and Latin American films rarely get a UK release. Travelling to Manchester to see these films, and often to listen to the directors, remains a surreal experience and the failure of UK film culture to properly embrace the films is a continual disappointment. Much the same can be said for the excellent films that turn up each year at the London Film Festival and rarely screen anywhere else in the UK. Thirst and Arianna were the two films that really stood out for me. What I’ve missed, most of all, is my local festival in Bradford. Will we ever get it back? It makes a mockery of Bradford’s title as the first ‘UNESCO City of Film’.
2015 has ended very badly for me. The triple whammy of Spectre, Hunger Games and Star Wars has driven out virtually every foreign language film (apart from Indian films) from UK cinema screens. It’s Christmas and I can’t find anything locally to go and see. Radio 4’s Film Programme on Christmas Eve was depressing with three guests giving each other DVDs of their pick of the year’s films as Christmas gifts. Predictably all were American. Only Francine Stock’s championing of Girlhood prevented me from switching off the programme. With the ‘awards season’ coming up and the prestige US pictures replacing the blockbusters, January also promises to be grim – but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Assassin is due for a UK release. Even so, I think I’m going to be watching more DVDs in 2016.
This newly released film looks set to do well in the Award Season, especially at the UK BAFTAS, having already won a Golden Globe for its star. It does posses a lot of the qualities that have pleased the BAFTA membership, including the fine acting that so frequently graces British films. However, despite a dramatic and ultimately feel-good real-life story as a basis, it rather fails to engage. I think the problems lies in the scripting and direction, as the production values are pretty good.
The film seems to be inhibited by that sense of ‘good taste’ that is so common in British films. To give one example [which as it is a recorded event is hardly a plot spoiler], late in the film Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace. We see the fore and after but not the actual event, which feels like an anti-climax. The same decorum also inhibits the sexual relations which are an important part of the story.
The film also suffers from a common problem with biopics – how to convey complex ideas without becoming complicated. One way used in this production occurs at the film’s end. The plot is reversed in a brief and rapid montage: a sort of mini-Benjamin Button. One can guess at the intended relationship to Stephen Hawkins’s famous work on Time: but it feels facile. The film is taken from the memoir by Jane: whilst the film shows her engaging with Stephen’s theorising the focus is personal rather than scientific.
But what the film really lacks is intensity. It crosses over in some ways with two earlier films – My Left Foot (UK 1989) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (US/France 2007). But those films not only enjoy fine lead performances, they also generate a sense of emotion that seems to engage most audiences. I rather think this film fails on that account.
In the last few years, January has become a desert as far as diversity in UK cinemas is concerned. The US/UK ‘awards films’ fill all the specialised cinema screens that would usually take a major foreign language film release. Distributors are discouraged from competition with Hollywood and mainstream independent distributors. So, currently, 12 Years a Slave (eOne), American Hustle (Columbia/Entertainment) and Gravity (Warner Bros) are still in cinemas alongside The Wolf of Wall Street (Universal). Dallas Buyers’ Club (Universal) and Her (Warner Bros/Entertainment) are to open soon. We did get The Missing Picture the Cambodian entry for Foreign Language film (in French) a couple of weeks ago but only in a very small number of cinemas and the Palestinian entry Omar has not yet been released in the UK.
I’ve complained about this before but it is getting worse and as Charles Gant reported in Sight and Sound (February), 2013 was the worst year for foreign language films at the UK box office since he started monitoring data in 2007. I genuinely fear that we are going to lose the audience for these films. The two most dynamic film industries in the world in terms of production and domestic success in 2013 are China and South Korea. When was the last time you saw a Chinese or Korean film at the cinema? I should point out that both exhibitors and distributors are part of the problem, but both are likely to rely on perceptions of what audiences want. Where do these perceptions come from? If younger audiences have never had the chance to see foreign language films how can they form a view about them?
It’s very important to support any foreign language films you can find on release. We do get regular South Asian films in our multiplexes but they remain ghettoised. Please, please go and see what is on offer. I’m hoping to catch a Pakistani film today and a Chinese film on Tuesday (a special screening at Cornerhouse by the indispensable Chinese Film Forum UK). I’m also looking forward to tonight’s last two episodes of The Bridge on BBC4. The popularity of foreign language drama on UK TV is one of the few pluses at the moment.
February should bring the new Claire Denis film Bastards and Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best – while the former is most likely to attract devotees, the latter sounds like a return to more accessible filmmaking. I’m sure both will feature on the blog and I hope they find their audiences in cinemas.